Drive-In Dust Offs: WAXWORK (1988)

2016/04/30 16:30:04 +00:00 | Scott Drebit

Waxwork (1)

The late ’80s provided a veritable potpourri for horror film fanatics. Slashers had petered out, and filmmakers were keen on exploring other avenues, everything from a parasitic drug slug (Brain Damage) to possession (The Unholy), and all points in-between. Of course, mileage may vary, and many have fallen through the cracks or are best forgotten. Possibly one of the oddest of the bunch is Anthony Hickox’s Waxwork (1988), a goofball mixture of Hammer and Amicus brought kicking and screaming into the modern era with a touch o’ teen comedy sensibility. And in horror, odd never hurts—and sometimes it even helps create an unassuming delight such as this.

Produced and distributed by Vestron Pictures, who scored big the previous year with the terrifying Dirty Dancing, Waxwork was given a limited release in June in the US and the rest of the world the following year. Made for $1,500,000, it only returned $800,000 domestically. However, when released on home video in ’89, it more than made its money back, which led to the sequel, Waxwork II: Lost in Time (’92). I’m surprised a sequel was even proffered, as Waxwork comes across as a unique, one time only experience.

A new wax museum has opened up in town, run by the sinister David Lincoln (David Warner—Time After Time), who invites a group of college kids to a midnight sneak peak. Inside the waxwork are displays paying tribute to monsters of yore—the Wolfman, Jack the Ripper, Dracula, and many others—and when a couple of the gang cross the velvet ropes, they become part of that particular world brought to life and have to fend for themselves against whatever awaits them (tip—one shouldn’t voluntarily visit the Wolfman). After Mark (Zach Galligan—Gremlins) and Sarah (Deborah Foreman—Valley Girl) make it out alive, they head to the police, which only results in one entombed detective (and one stunning Mummy design). Now more desperate than ever, they turn to Sir Wilfred (Patrick Macnee—The Howling), local master of exposition, to discover who Lincoln is and what he wants. So one more trip it is to the waxwork, to put an end to Lincoln and his monstrosities. But will they be too late? (See: sequel.)

Waxwork shines due to its offbeat premise, but even more so its execution. There’s lightheartedness at play here that is disarming, especially juxtaposed against the surprising grue sprayed across the screen. The film delights in excess, but not to the point that it detracts from the story. And to be fair, the story really is nothing more than a super-caffeinated, gory take on Scooby-Doo—which is great as high concept, but in the wrong hands and with the wrong tone could be disastrous. Luckily, the producers took a chance on a young director with an impressive pedigree, Anthony Hickox.

This was writer/director Hickox’s first film (he would go on to helm Sundown and Hellraiser III, among others), but he was certainly no stranger to a film set. His father, Douglas, directed the all-time horror classic Theatre of Blood (’73) with Vincent Price, and he shares his dad’s sense of stylish economy when it comes to storytelling—but not at the start. The straight comedy tone used prior to the first midnight rendezvous just doesn’t work; it comes off as stilted and juvenile. However, once the horror elements are introduced, the film flies—while it retains a humorous touch, the frat boy mentality is supplanted by a less abrasive tongue-in-cheek approach that lends itself to the film’s Hammer/Amicus feel. As well, Hickox and DP Gerry Lively (Return of the Living Dead III) slavishly honor the look of these classic films; once inside a display the horrors are lovingly shown awash in primary colors, and in an all too brief segment, glorious monochrome in a tribute to Night of the Living Dead.

Actually, Waxwork would make a great double feature with Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps (1986), each film showcasing a director truly in love with the horror genre. No cash grabs or ladder climbing for these fellas—just a real appreciation for, and dedication to, the types of movies they adore. Whereas Creeps mixes several subgenres into one ghoulish goulash, Waxwork presents one main vein which then branches off for each mini-tribute. By the end of the film, when all the monsters have been released from their displays, creating a massive orgy of destruction and mayhem, one can’t help but wonder if Hickox inspired future genre filmmakers such as Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. And while their Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a hilarious commentary on the relationship between horror films and their fans, Waxwork is a straight-up love letter to the genre, albeit with an amusing self referential lilt that was certainly refreshing before a lot of post-Scream films diluted it and turned it sour. This movie knows it’s a movie about movies within a movie, but there’s no eye-rolling or cynicism attached (and before you pull out your Etch-A-Sketch to write me a letter, let it be known I adore Cabin).

Another factor that gives the old school a fresh coat of paint is the effects work from Bob Keen (Nightbreed, Event Horizon) and several others. All the creature designs are updated versions of the classics; but man, they sure cause a lot more damage than Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing ever saw. And that’s also what works in the film's favor—a reverence for the past with an enthusiasm for the then current state of on-screen sorcery. You will see decapitations and heads crushed and people split in half (take that, Bone Tomahawk), not to mention aerial geysers of blood that probably had Tarantino furiously scribbling notes in an ADHD rage. What I’m saying is this: if you want blood, you got it.

Galligan and Foreman of course helped bring the young crowd in (or they tried, at least), and they both give spirited performances; Foreman especially is a gem, always bringing a freshness and likability to her roles with an enriching smile, and her Sarah is no exception. But if we’re tipping our hats to foggy banks and ripped bodices, we need some British blood present, and Hickox cannily hired veterans of not necessarily Hammer productions, but certainly genre pros who definitely fit the bill. Macnee and Warner act as a conduit between the productions of old and modern-day fright feasts. And both are terrifically droll; in what essentially amounts to glorified cameos, they provide the class that is essential in paying homage to past cinematic glories. Actually, all the cast can take a bow here, as each character is given a chance to shine in quirky and unexpected ways.

I love horror movies like this. Movies that wear their hearts on their sleeves; that bow in respect to what has come before, while training their eyes on the here and now. Waxwork is such a feature. And with Hickox’s talent on display, there’s so much to take in. But first, you have to cross those damn velvet ropes.

Waxwork is available along with the sequel in a double feature DVD from Lionsgate.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: IT! (1967)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.